I want to preface this by saying that I would never encourage a riot and I hope that I am never at a prison where one breaks out, forcing me to choose whether to take part or to take the consequences of not doing so from those who are.
However, I do think that the increase in the number and seriousness of prison disturbances over the past couple of years could actually be a good thing. Of course I don’t want anyone to get hurt, whether they are a prisoner or an officer, but physical violence does not necessarily have to be a core element of rioting. Criminal damage? Usually. Mutiny and insubordination? Definitely. But physical assault? It’s simply not necessary. What you won’t read in the mainstream media though, is what long term benefits may come from these riots for people on all sides.
The lessons can be learned from the Strangeways riots (and others) in the early nineties. The Tory government had ignored rising problems in British prisons for years and, eventually, prisoners took direct action. Once the immediate situation had been dealt with, a full review of imprisonment was undertaken, resulting in the publication of the Woolf report, and over the next decade a complete overhaul of prisons was undertaken, making them far more humane places. Unfortunately, fear and anger sell more papers than pats on the back so the tabloids ran with the headline “British Prisons Like Butlins”. However, what was even more concerning was that people actually believed this.
It has long been said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners. As I’ve written previously, if you treat prisoners harshly then they will eventually be released with a fear of coming back alongside a deep seated resentment of the system that did that to them. Over time fear will fade but resentment will not. Prisoners treated harshly, with little hope of anything better in life, will re-offend and hit back at those they feel (rightly or wrongly) oppressed by. On the other hand, if you treat them humanely then they will welcome and absorb efforts to rehabilitate them and be released with a desire to live a positive life alongside an appreciation of the system that has made that possible. Some countries focus on punishment and have low levels of short term re-offending but higher levels of long term re-offending. Some countries focus on rehabilitation and enjoy low levels of re-offending across the board. In Britain we see the benefits of rehabilitation and we give it a go, but we also pander to the tabloid media and attempt to put some focus on punishment too. What this amounts to is prisoners being told that they should treat people better at the same time as being expected to put up with being treated worse themselves. This does nothing other than making them hate the system all the more and, as a result, we have one of the highest proportional prison population in Europe, and a ridiculously high rate of re-offending – both long term and short term. You simply cannot punish and rehabilitate at the same time. It doesn’t work. They are mutually exclusive. And it’s time we, as a society, made a choice. Do you want revenge (punishment) or do you want to be safer (rehabilitation)?
Until we make that choice certain things will continue to happen. The prison population will continue to grow. The pressure on the system will result in ever harsher conditions in prison. Resentment and anger amongst prisoners will keep increasing. And we will see more and more violence, more and more suicides, and more and more riots in our prisons until we change our approach or the system breaks completely. But this isn’t the first time you’ve been told this. For years you’ve been told it by prisoners, shouting out in response to the media headlines to say the people at Butlins don’t fear for their lives or commit suicide with an average of two lives lost each week. You’ve been told it by prison reformers seeking to publicise what prison conditions are really like. You’ve even been told it by the prison officers themselves who have resorted to what the high court called unlawful industrial action, so great were their concerns about the state of prisons today.
So why? Why do you choose to believe that because you’ve seen photos of one, two, maybe three small groups of prisoners smoking spice, rapping about their crimes and posting videos on social media, every prisoner is doing this? Why do you not understand that psychoactive substances go for up to fifty pounds a hit and a mobile phone will set you back up to a grand in prison? Why don’t you see that, for every prisoner that can afford to do such things, there is half a wing of prisoners being bullied, intimidated, robbed, pressured into drug dependency, and attacked for any dissent? The reason you don’t see these things is simple. The Ministry of Justice don’t want you to.
The worst thing that could possibly come out of the riot at Birmingham is for people to buy into the idea that it is the fault of G4S – the private contractor that runs the jail. Don’t get me wrong – G4S are incompetent and how they keep getting these contracts is beyond me, but the problems at Birmingham are problems everywhere – at public and private prisons alike. The Ministry of Justice will undoubtedly try to blame this on G4S. They will point the finger at psychoactive substances. They will claim it was the result of incitement by a small group of hardcore prisoners who will feel “the full force of the law”. What they will not do is take responsibility for the shortage of staff, the shortage of resources, the shortage of funds, and the shortage of humanity in prisons up and down the country. They won’t listen to the Prison Officers’ Association, they won’t listen to prisoners, and they won’t listen to you. The only question is whether you are going to listen to them – the same government that betrays you in every other area of your life from welfare to benefits, Brexit to foreign military intervention, or whether you are going to listen to prisoners and the prison officers who are all telling you that the system is in crisis. And how often do you think that prisoners and prison officers agree on things so vehemently? Surely this is a sign that there really is a problem here which needs to be addressed.
And yes, stripping prisoners of all privileges is one of the ways you could seek to address it. But consider this: when televisions were introduced in prisons violence was reduced by half over night. That is the power of humanity and compassion. It harks back to the age old line that prisoners are in jail as punishment, not for punishment, but many people simply don’t understand the significance of this. So, for one moment, put aside what a prisoner may have done, and imagine how you might feel to be taken away from your family and to be shipped hundreds of miles away to a jail at the far end of the country. Imagine how it feels to be paid as little as £2.50 for a full week’s work whilst being required to pay almost double the standard rate for telephone calls, leaving you reliant on getting money sent in from your family just to be able to speak to them. Imagine how you might feel to know that, because of the financial strain and the distance, you’ll be lucky if your family can get to visit you even once a month for two short hours. Imagine how you might feel to know all of this and to want, more than anything else, to prove yourself through engagement on offending behaviour programmes so that you can go home to your family at the soonest possible opportunity on parole, but not to be able to because resources for such courses are so overstretched that the waiting list for a place is longer than your entire sentence. And imagine how you might feel to come under pressure from some of the most violent people in the country to take your mind off it all by taking their drugs, or to earn more money by brewing hooch or holding a phone for them, or to generally just hand over what little you have got under threat of violence. Now yes, most prisoners are in jail because of their own actions. But does that take away all of those feelings? Or perhaps you could imagine how you’d feel to be full of guilt on top of everything else as well. Guilt for your family, guilt for your friends, guilt more than anything for those you have hurt. Finally, imagine how you might feel to be going through all that while overstretched and stressed out officers snap at you, your fellow prisoners are all at one another’s throats – and yours too, and your family keep asking why you’re not doing more to get home, only for you to see another media report saying “British Prisons Like Butlins” and calling for the prison service to take away your TV even though that’s the only thing still distracting you from the idea of suicide. Now tell me you still think it is a good idea.
The solution is simple. But it starts with you in the public. You stop believing the rhetoric of a government that tells you to listen to them but not to experts or those with first hand experience. You hold them to account. You force them (via the ballot box) to commit to prison reform and to fund prisons so that they are properly resourced and staffed, so they are able to offer effective rehabilitation in humane conditions, so they reduce re-offending, and so that when the prisoners are released you are actually safer and less likely to become the victim of someone re-offending.
What is it that makes me think riots might not always be such a bad thing? Put simply, it is the fact that riots leave the Ministry of Justice unable to deny the crisis in prisons any longer. They throw the spotlight on what is going on and they give you the opportunity – just the opportunity – to question whether such thing would really be happening if prisons were as cushy as you’ve been led to believe. However, it’s a rare opportunity and it comes at great cost to those involved. I only hope it doesn’t go to waste.